BOOK REIVEW / Camel-trains and mandarins: 'A History of Civilizations' - Fernand Braudel: Allen Lane, 25 pounds QBY: JAN MORRIS
Saturday 12 March 1994
More miserably still, French Academe, so obsessed with schools and -isms. It is surely an academic arrogance anyway to suppose that Braudel and his colleagues pioneered the study of history as a mu1ti-discipline - a mix of economics, geography and social science as well as politics and war. Diplomats and journalists have always interpreted nations in this holistic way, not to mention travel writers since the days of Ibn Battuta. That the French intellectual elite should find such a blend controversial only confirms what fools these Immortals be.
Fools enough to prevent this book being adopted, as Braudel intended, as the final text-book of history courses in French secondary schools - a sixth-form summing-up of the entire past. It seems to me a magnificent idea, to present to young minds on the threshold of life a grand sweep over the whole course of human progress: and fortunately when Braudel emerges from his opening in-fights and obfuscations he takes to the air again - not to the thrilling hedge-hopping of the Mediterranean in the age of Philip II, but to a Jumbo altitude, from where the mighty goings-on of our race can be seen swirling around the globe like fronts and depressions on a weather map.
It would take God himself, of course, to do full justice to such a vision. Dear Professor Braudel (who died, actually, in 1985) is entirely human. As a prophet he is by no means omniscient - for example even in 1963, when this book was originally published, he never foresaw that the flood of Hispanics into the United States would transform that country by the end of the century. As a judge he seems to me erratic: a history of civilizations which includes no reference to Adolf Hitler, and only seven references to Jews, all of them in the chapter about Islam, is hardly Solomonic. As a historian of everything he is agreeably fallible: how endearing to be reminded that the scientist John Black, though of Scottish parentage and a professor at Edinburgh, was actually born in Bordeaux; and that while the violin was made popular by Italian virtuosi, 'the present-day bow . . . was invented by a Frenchman.'
I could quibble about the book for pages. It is full of footling generalisations. America 'has become conscious of its history, and is approaching the moment of truth'; no action can last 'unless it goes in history's direction and at history's pace'; 'civilization is the longest story of all'. It has its inaccuracies: Java can hardly be said to be part of 'the Indian archipelago'; Macao is in no sense 'opposite Canton'; the Sikhs don't come from the Himalayas. Its up-dating, described in the blurb as 'gentle', is a lot too gentle: on page 95 there is still no such country as Bangladesh, on page 522 the population of Australia is stuck at 15 million. And it is really no use telling us, out of the blue, to 'compare how the town of Troyes treated its indigent population in 1573' - we have no idea how Troyes treated its indigents in 1573]
But there, the little dog barks and the caravan moves on. Fernand Braudel's aerial cavalcade easily survives these impertinent snaps from the ground, and stays in my mind, as I put away my pettifogging notebooks, as a work of art - far nobler than mere scholarship. Its insights are variously luminous, startling and curious. Braudel suggests, for instance, that if we could record in an electronic memory the sum total of our knowledge of European history, from the 5th century to the present, the operative word of the whole assembly would be 'liberty'. He says that in the early 15th century the Chinese all but rounded the Cape of Good Hope, half a century before the Portuguese went the other way. He tells us that in 1914 the Socialists of Europe 'were close to seizing power and building a Europe as modern as it is today - and perhaps more so'. He bravely suggests that homage is due to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.
He likens money-lenders to 'painful splinters' in society. He believes that until the Mongol assaults of the 13th century India, and Europe were more or less on a par. He brilliantly illustrates the continuity between the mandarins of the old China and the party bureaucrats of the new, and springs a characteristic surprise with the observation that, apart from the Vikings, the Europeans quickest to develop sea-power were the Dutch, the Italians and the Irish.
Braudel's portrait of the planet is immensely varied and vivacious. He hates the drabness of statistics, and is looking always, even through his murkiest vapours of synthesis, for those galleys, camels and disputatious merchants. He thinks of civilization always in the plural, and infinitely divisible - there are Scottish and Kazakh civilizations in his view, even civilizations of individual cities. One rises, another falls, this one overlaps the next.
Lots of the book is out of date, some of it is meandering, and to my mind it is no more convincing as a rationale of human existence than Macbeth's maxim (itself rather Braudelian, come to think of it) about sound and fury. But it is a tremendous thing nevertheless, a panorama full of emotion, excitement, humanity and even hope. And did you know that the French introduced their social security system in 1945-46, before the British? In this immense neo- celestial survey of the whole gamut of earthly achievement, Professor Braudel finds room to tell us that, bless his Gallic heart.
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